Through the Wormhole s03e08 Episode Script

Mysteries Of The Subconscious

Freeman: Inside your head is an unexplored world.
It holds all that you know, everything you feel, and thoughts you aren't even aware of.
Now science is searching the hidden reaches of our minds, decoding its inner language to discover our true mental power and to understand the mysteries of the subconscious.
Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
The subconscious -- it's the source of our primal fears and desires, the wellspring of our dreams, the place where our alter egos lurk.
But as modern neuroscience explores the frontiers of our minds, we're discovering the subconscious controls our every waking moment.
If we can truly understand our unthinking minds, we could all become smarter, healthier, and more creative than we ever dreamed possible.
I was eight years old when I got on stage for the first time.
I had to re-enact "Little Boy Blue.
" Even though the poem was only 12 lines long, I was certain I was going to mess it up.
But the moment I began to speak, some hidden part of me seemed to take over.
The lines flowed out of me without a hitch.
And I felt like I wasn't even there.
[ Applause ] How is it we are able to do something so complex without even thinking? Marcus Raichle is a neuroscientist at Washington University School of Medicine in St.
Louis, Missouri.
He is constantly amazed at what our brains can do.
Raichle: We have memories that have to do with how I move my hands and legs and all this kind of thing, for which we have no conscious sense of how this is all implemented.
We kind of forget how complicated these things are.
Freeman: As an amateur musician, Marcus likes to compare our brain's separate functions, like vision, hearing, memory, and muscle control, to the individual players in a musical ensemble.
And for him, the miracle of the brain is how it gets these complex systems to perform in perfect harmony [ Orchestra playing ] rather than like this [ Instruments playing off-key ] After years spent imaging brains, Marcus eventually discovered an entire mental network that coordinates our movements with our senses, and it turns on the moment you stop thinking.
Raichle: Nobody was even looking for this.
It was almost by accident.
It came to our attention that if you just were laying in a scanner and we were looking at your brain and then we asked you to do something, not only did things go up, but certain things went down.
Freeman: Certain parts of the brain seem to turn off whenever we begin a task.
Those same regions become highly active whenever we are quiet and relaxed.
Marcus calls these linked sections of the brain the Default Mode Network, because the brain defaults to this activity whenever we are not doing anything else.
In fact, the brain is just as active in this default mode as when we're consciously doing something.
After careful analysis, Marcus thinks he understands why.
Raichle: The default mode is deeply important in creating an ability to predict what's gonna happen next.
I think it's really critical.
Freeman: In the same way that an ensemble's musical director organizes the group's music, the Default Mode Network organizes all the functions of the brain so that mind and body are always on the same page.
But is our subconscious always the servant of our conscious mind? Or can it also take charge? Henrik Ehrsson, a neuroscientist in Stockholm, Sweden, is obsessed with his body.
In fact, he thinks about bodies nonstop because he wants to know exactly how our minds control our bodies.
Ehrsson: Well, here I stand, like a sculpture of skin and bone and joints.
But I feel alive.
I feel my conscious experience in my entire body.
My body feels like part of me.
And what I'm interested in is to understand how can that can be.
How can we have this experience of our own body as part of ourselves, distinct from the rest of the world? Freeman: Welcome to the Dollhouse.
These limbs, cameras, and knives are actually part of a scientific experiment designed by Henrik to play with our subconscious mind's sense of who and where we are.
Well, we knew that there's lots of processes in the brain that we are not aware of that happens at a subconscious level.
What we try to understand is what makes those signals become part of our conscious experience.
Freeman: A blindfolded subject is led into a room with two beds, one for himself and the other for a small doll.
Ehrsson: It's important that you try not to move during the experiment.
Okay? We use head-mounted displays that we connect to cameras.
So, there's two screens in front of the participant eyes.
And each screen is connected to one video camera, which we can mount on the head of a mannequin or a doll.
So when you look down, you don't see your own body anymore.
You see the doll from the natural, first-person perspective.
Freeman: The subject feels the stroking on his leg but sees the stroking on the doll's leg, so his brain is fooled into thinking that the doll's legs are actually his own.
Ehrsson: And what happens then is the brain just fuses what you see and what you feel, and boom, you feel like the doll or the mannequin.
We think the brain creates like an internal model of your own body, and we think the brain does that by integrating all available information from all the senses and be part of making that decision that "this is me" or "this is not me.
" Freeman: Having tricked the brain into a false reality, Henrik can now tweak that reality and reveal how powerful the subconscious actually is.
The researcher threatens the doll with the knife.
The subject flinches with horror.
His brain can't help but expect excruciating pain.
Even after the subject realizes it was a trick, he continues to have the same reaction when the illusion is repeated.
His conscious experience cannot override his subconscious reaction.
Ehrsson: You can't think it away.
You know it's just, you know, an experiment.
But you can't help that bodily feeling of "ugh" because you feel that this doll is you, so your brain just reacts in a very sort of basic way, and that signal, this reaction, is what we're measuring to really prove that the illusion is real.
Freeman: One of Henrik's goals in performing these unnerving visual illusions is to locate the precise part of the subconscious brain that keeps track of where your body is.
Brain scans he's performed during a body swap point to increased activity in the ventral premotor cortex, the sensory neurons involved in the visual guidance of movement.
Well, the ventral premotor cortex is one of those key nodes in the brain that integrate what you feel and what you see for controlling the body, for defending the body.
[ Bell dings, cheers and applause ] Because if you're in a fight, you need to know, you know, where is your body and where is your opponent, and you need to be able to act.
So those circuits of the brain are built to defend the body from threat, for interacting with objects in the world, and always keep track of the boundary between you and the world.
Ohh! Freeman: Knowing the difference between what is us and not us is so vital that our subconscious reactions will overrule our conscious thoughts.
And sometimes that can mean the difference between life and death.
Have you ever had a hunch, a feeling that something was wrong? Most of us have.
But where does that feeling come from? It could be a message from your subconscious mind, telling you it knows something that you don't.
[ Horn honks ] Joshua Brown is always on the go and always anticipating the unexpected.
Brown: When I go out cycling, there are dangers potentially everywhere.
Is that pedestrian gonna jump in front of me? Is that car door gonna open in front of me? Is that car gonna cut me off? And I'm constantly evaluating, "is there some danger that I need to look out for, that I need to be careful to avoid?" Freeman: But Joshua's research at Indiana University in Bloomington has shown him that this conscious evaluation is only the first layer of our brain's danger-sensing mechanism.
What really keeps us out of harm's way is our subconscious.
Joshua has found a way of studying how our subconscious mind triggers a gut feeling when something is about to go wrong.
And it's a lot safer than riding your bike through rush-hour traffic.
Basically, on each trial, there's gonna be an arrow that appears in the middle of the screen, and the arrow points left or right.
And it's really simple.
Press the left button if the arrow points left and press the right button if the arrow points right.
Freeman: But there is a catch.
Sometimes, within a half second, an opposing arrow appears.
And he must press that arrow's direction instead.
Each trial only lasts one second, so if he decides too quickly, he might miss the second arrow.
Too slowly and he could run out of time.
[ Buzzer sounds ] Brown: And so the longer we wait, the more likely it is it's too late and they've already pressed the wrong button.
[ Computer beeps, buzzer sounds ] Freeman: Joshua has programmed a pattern into the test, but it's too subtle for the subject to pick up consciously.
Instead, he must rely on his gut feelings.
Brown: What we really want to do is to isolate mechanisms in the brain that might be able to signal when you think you're more likely to make a mistake.
Freeman: Joshua now conducts the same experiment while the subject is an MRI machine.
He sees that one brain area in particular buzzes with activity when the subject feels like he might be about to make an error.
It's the anterior cingulate cortex.
Brown: And so, here you can see, in red, the anterior cingulate cortex is showing a strong effect of error likelihood.
That is, even when subjects don't actually make a mistake, they're still showing effects in this region that seem to anticipate the greater likelihood of making a mistake.
Freeman: Joshua believes this activity in the anterior cingulate cortex is the source of our gut feelings.
But it's not just protecting us as we bike down busy streets.
Sometimes it can be responsible for the fate of hundreds of lives.
[ Explosions ] In 1991, in the opening days of the Persian Gulf War, a fleet of British battleships is stationed 20 miles off the shores of Kuwait.
A lone naval officer is Manning the radar station of one of the ships looking for incoming threats.
All is quiet until a blip suddenly appears on the radar screen.
That radar blip could've been one of two things.
It could've been a friendly aircraft returning from a bombing run, or it could've been a Silkworm missile fired by the Iraqis.
The radar officer had a decision to make.
He could order the firing of countermeasures, but if he did that, and it was a friendly aircraft, he would down a friendly aircraft.
Now, if that incoming object was an enemy missile, several hundred people, along with the ship, could lose their lives.
And he had less than a minute to decide.
Freeman: Time is running out.
But all the officer has to go on is a gut feeling.
[ Computer beeps ] So he orders the launch of countermeasures.
He sees the still unidentified object fall off the radar screen.
The countermeasures destroy the target less than half a mile from the fleet of ships.
Brown: He went back to his room and just -- he was just tormented over what had happened.
Freeman: His torment is short-lived.
Radio calls confirm that the target was indeed a Silkworm missile, not a friendly aircraft.
In the final review of the incident, investigators discovered that a friendly aircraft would have appeared on the radar screen during the first sweep, whereas the Silkworm missile would initially be masked by ground interference.
So, it would only appear on the screen during the third radar sweep, as it got closer to the ships.
The officer's brain had somehow picked up on this different pattern, even though it was not written in any manual and he was not consciously aware of the difference.
The anterior cingulate cortex registered the danger based on the experience of cumulative encounters -- what looks like a friendly aircraft and what doesn't.
And so, by his action, in a matter of seconds, he saved the ship and hundreds of lives.
The brain is constantly processing these kinds of signals.
People may think that they've just now become aware or they've just now decided, but in reality, most likely, their brain was processing that information well before.
Freeman: Our subconscious mind is always two steps ahead of us, signaling what to do before we are even aware of it.
Could other people's brains pick up these signals, too? Body language -- it's the native tongue of the subconscious.
The way we move, the tone of our voice -- we are constantly giving off these subtle signals, and they can have a profound effect on those around us.
What if you could decode this language? What are we really saying to one another? Humans are always communicating -- chatting, talking on the phone, sending e-mails, tweeting, and texting.
"Sandy" Pentland of M.
's Human Dynamics Lab tries to rise above all this hubbub.
He prefers a different perspective on how we connect.
For him, words are not important.
He cares about a more primal form of communication.
He calls it honest signaling.
Groups, before we had much language, had to still pool language and make decisions.
You see this in apes today.
And people have the same sort of behaviors and signals.
It's our social sense of each other, things like dominance, attraction, interest, excitement, fear.
Those can be examples of honest signals.
They're not very conscious to us, but yet they have big impacts on how we behave with each other.
Freeman: Sandy wanted to study how involuntary signals are transmitted within groups of people, so he developed a special tool.
They are called sociometric badges.
Pentland: So, the sociometric badges that we have, they measure your tone of voice -- so how you say it, not what you say.
They also measure a certain of body language using an accelerometer.
Freeman: Today, Sandy has asked eight M.
graduate students to perform a group task.
So, this is a team-building exercise to look at how you guys actually work together to do this task.
And the task is take pages from a comic book and put them in the right order but without showing them to each other.
So, you have to talk to each other, you have to, you know, figure out ways to describe it in order to get it in the right order.
And what we're also gonna do is, while you do that, we're gonna have these badges that we put on you.
There is a weird, like, spaceship in mine.
I have the explosion.
I can tell you that the flamethrowers did not work, whoever had [laughs] that other section.
Freeman: While the students try to solve the task, the smart badges are busily recording intimate details of their subconscious behavior.
So, a lot of these patterns are, indeed, unconscious.
They're things you can focus on consciously, but, normally, you don't.
It turns out they have enormous impact on the productivity of a group.
Robots and monsters, there's two different things.
I'm robots.
I'm robots.
Maybe we should clear that out.
Does anyone actually have a monster, or are we all robots here? Freeman: And though the task has a clear goal, it's not the outcome that primarily interests Sandy.
Pentland: In watching things, we always get distracted by the ideas.
But what seems to really count, in terms of performance, is the flow of information.
Woman: I'm not sure whether that is the first page or whether it's after.
Like, I could see either yours as background story, and then we have, "Here is your current adventure.
" Pentland: This is showing who's talking to who.
And you see that everybody's talking pretty much to everybody except for maybe this one person, who isn't that involved.
These little yellow balls -- this is how much "in the loop" people are.
So, are they part of a loop of conversation? And that's important because it has to do with whether people are on the same page or not.
Boom, boom.
resulted from someone else's bomb.
And then, down here, this is maybe the most interesting thing.
So, this is looking at dominance.
So this is how much people are pushing the conversation and driving it.
And the size of the yellow ball there shows their dominance score, and you can see everybody's about the same.
Their yellow circles are about the same size, which is what you want for this sort of brainstorming task.
You don't want anybody to be really dominant.
You want everybody contributing.
You want everybody holding the flow about the same time, and that seems to be what we got.
I think I'm actually here.
Pentland: Okay.
Oh, now we're getting rid of the end.
Freeman: Sandy has also found a connection between a person's tone of voice and how effective they are in a group.
Do you have a blond person and a dark-haired person? Is that the "scientist," or are they a different type of scientist? Sandy's studies show that people who speak in a direct and consistently strong tone of voice are perceived as having expertise.
Pentland: There's a sort of practical type of charisma, which is being able to get your point across convincingly.
Then you want a lot of energy, people putting in lots of contributions, so the balance of contributions and having lots of contributions are two characteristics of really good teams in this type of situation.
Everyone's got to tell their story -- real short -- lay down their piece.
And then, at the end, we'll turn them over and see what happened, okay? Freeman: The moment has arrived.
Does their assembled comic strip match the correct one lying facedown on the floor? Okay.
Let's do it here.
First ones.
There we go.
Freeman: Sandy claims the device has up to 90% accuracy identifying productive workers and problem cases.
Pentland: Individuals want to come across in a way that's effective.
You want to have people trust you.
You want to have your ideas heard.
You don't want to be doing things that put people off.
The science that we've been able to do with this says that it's not sort of how smart you are, it's how smart you are about other people.
I think of it as improving social intelligence.
The subconscious is constantly at work behind the scenes.
Without it, we'd never make it through the day.
But could that hidden brain power do even more? Some scientists believe we can tap into our subconscious to heal our bodies and expand our minds.
It's all around us -- traffic, deadlines, financial pressures.
And over time, it can take a toll on our bodies, leading to sickness and sometimes death.
But what if there was a way to reverse the effects of stress without the need for any drugs? What if our minds could heal us? Dr.
Herbert Benson, of the Benson-Henry Institute For Mind Body Medicine in Boston, is a scientist of a different mind-set.
He's on a crusade to show that sickness is as much mental as it is physical.
Well, it's not all in your mind, but a lot is in your mind that we can tap into.
Freeman: In the 1980s, Herbert trekked to the Himalayas to observe how Tibetan monks chill out.
At an altitude of 15,000 feet, in a monastery as cold as a refrigerator, the monks wrap themselves in frozen sheets to practice an extraordinary form of meditation called Tummo.
Through meditation, Herbert observed that the monks were able to raise the temperature of their skin by 17 degrees Fahrenheit while keeping their core body temperature normal.
Benson: Tummo is a form of meditation they practice to do away with negative thoughts.
And as a by-product of that, the body is able to generate enough heat to dry icy, wet sheets on their naked bodies and get them steaming.
Freeman: It's still unknown exactly how the monks achieve this inner fire.
But scientists suspect the meditation directly taps into the part of the nervous system that regulates body temperature.
Benson: We were fascinated on how far such a mind-body effect could go.
[ Horns honk ] [ Baby cries ] Freeman: If meditation could control our body's thermostat, Herbert wondered if the brain also had the capacity to cure our modern-day epidemic of stress.
Herbert believes that stress stems from our instinctive fight-or-flight response, which begins when the brain's limbic system releases a flood of hormones.
A secondary effect of these stress hormones is to cause inflammation in cells.
If cells become inflamed for prolonged periods, they can trigger a host of ailments like heart disease, arthritis, and Crohn's disease.
[ Groans ] So Herbert developed an eight-week therapy designed to combat stress, involving 15 minutes of meditation every day.
He calls it the Relaxation Response.
To bring that relaxation response about, there has to be a repetition of a word.
Close your eyes.
And you're gonna find all sorts of other thoughts coming to mind.
They're normal, and they're natural, and they should be expected.
And when they occur, don't be upset, but simply say, "Oh, well.
" [ Horn honks, birds chirp ] [ Man screams ] [ Thunder rumbles ] There's a quietude in the brain that occurs when you evoke the relaxation response.
Less static, less noise on brain imaging measure the very activity of brain cells themselves.
Very slowly, slowly open your eyes.
Did you notice any changes in your body while you were doing -- repeating the word "peace" and disregarding other thoughts? I did.
I just felt like a lightness.
I just don't feel like anything's bothering me.
I don't have anything on my mind.
Welcome back.
[ Chuckles ] Freeman: Before and after the eight weeks of relaxation therapy, Herbert drew blood samples from his patients and looked for any changes in the activity of genes that control inflammation.
Benson: Say a certain gene is being turned on, that gene will be red.
These are the genes that control the inflammatory immune processes of the body.
Then you'll see, looking at it afterwards, that gene will be turned off -- red on, green off, so red to green.
You'll see that change.
Evoking the relaxation response can actually change your gene's activity.
Freeman: Herbert's study proves we can harness the power of the subconscious brain to produce concrete medical benefits.
Benson: We now have a scientifically proven approach right down to the genomic level.
This will be more incorporated because, not so much of the science, but also it's cheaper.
This is cheaper than drugs, and it's obviously cheaper than surgeries.
Freeman: If our inner mind can be our medicine, in what other ways could we use it to improve our lives? One scientist has found out, thanks to an electrifying discovery.
Have you tried to solve what seems like a simple problem, only to find yourself hopelessly stuck? You know the answer is somewhere inside your mind, but you can't find it.
Perhaps all you need is a jolt of inspiration.
Allan Snyder is the director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia.
And he always has his thinking cap on.
I was about to get on a train, and this girl gave me her cap, and she said, "hey, you look so good in that.
Keep it.
" And that's why I've worn it.
In fact, I've worn it ever since.
Freeman: Part comedian, part wizard, Allan spends much of his time thinking about the limits of our problem-solving abilities.
Imagine if you were asked to count the number of marbles in this jar.
Could you do it? Snyder: Our minds categorize things into concepts, and we're not so good at detail.
We see the whole and not the parts.
We see the forest, not the individual trees.
But what would happen if you weren't like that? Suppose you did have access to all the literal details in the world.
Freeman: Allan thinks we can access this cognitive power because some people already do.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social and communication skills.
But 10% of autistics are savants.
They exhibit exceptional skills involving math, memory, music, and art.
Snyder: An autistic savant is someone who has the ability to see the parts and not the whole.
They have privileged access to unconscious details, unconscious processes that all of us have, but they're beyond our conscious awareness.
Maybe genius requires a dash of autism.
Freeman: Allan has discovered that autistic savants' brains share a pattern of unusual activity -- impairment of the left temporal lobe, a region he believes is associated with pre-existing concepts, and an overcompensation in the right temporal lobe, which Allan suggests deals with new ideas.
Allan wanted to find the inner savant in all of us, so he came up with the idea of a creativity cap, a device that would mimic a savant's patterns of brain activity.
Imagine a device that allows us to do, perhaps, problems that other people have had great difficulty.
We're going to show you a number of equations made from matchsticks -- Roman numeral type of matchstick equations.
And something's wrong with the equation, and you're supposed to move one matchstick to make the equation correct.
One plus three equals four, yep.
That's it.
That's the solution.
Now let's do another.
Freeman: Carl sees a pattern.
By changing a Roman numeral X, or 10, to a V, or 5, he can correct the equation.
Applying the same pattern, he solves several more puzzles.
But when presented with a different type of equation, one that is not corrected by changing a 10 to a 5, Carl is stumped.
No idea.
Freeman: Now Allan prepares to give him a jolt of inspiration.
This cap sends a small positive electric current to the right side of the brain, while a negative current runs to the left hemisphere.
The technique is called transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS.
And it's designed to mimic the pattern of brain activity found in savants.
How do you feel now? There's a little bit tingling.
Freeman: After stimulating with TDCS, Carl tries the matchstick problem again.
Very good.
Snyder: This is a case of mental fixation.
We can't help but look at the world through the frames of what we already know.
We see a filtered view of the world, not all the details.
But Carl, after transcranial direct current stimulation, was able to see the solution.
Freeman: Allan's creativity cap temporarily changed the way Carl's brain worked.
It appeared to give him savant-like abilities.
I can imagine a day when we have creativity caps that can allow us to look at the world anew, free of our mind-sets.
Freeman: But Allan's research is only scratching the surface of the mind's true potential.
This man believes the hidden power of the subconscious can take us all to new heights.
The subconscious mind is more than just a storehouse for primal thoughts and emotions.
It's vital to our daily function and survival.
We know that we can harness it to reveal temporary genius.
But could we permanently modify our brains, custom stimulate them to be smarter and more powerful? Michael Weisend is a neuroscientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
He has been drafted by the U.
Air Force to improve its most powerful image processes -- human brains.
Military technicians, not computers, analyze the images from unmanned aerial drones, looking for enemy targets suitable for aerial bombardment.
It's a high-stakes task where one mistake could mean destroying an allied aid vehicle instead of an enemy artillery truck.
Only humans interpret the data that comes off of the drones.
So there's a need for a greater number of image analysts to look at that data, and we wanted to enhance the ability of the brain to experience and record information from the environment.
Freeman: Computers are not yet smart enough to pick out enemy targets on the grainy imagery from the drones.
Only humans have enough skill in recognizing their distinctive shapes when distorted by sunlight and grainy pixels.
It typically takes many months of training to become proficient at this task.
The trouble is we cannot create enough experts quickly enough to deal with the demand from the remotely piloted aircraft, or the drones.
Freeman: But Michael had an idea.
He would locate the region of the brain that is most active while the experts were looking for targets, then he would use transcranial direct current stimulation to amplify the activity in that region of the trainees' brains and see whether it made them faster learners.
One of the things that's quite obvious in the scans is that, when you are a novice, there's low-level activation in the medial temporal lobes.
But in experts, there's very high-level activation.
And so we targeted TDCS at these areas that increase activity in order to accelerate training.
Freeman: Once the TDCS headgear is in place but not yet turned on, the novice goes through a half hour training session studying aerial photos.
In the center is a red circle that he needs to click and drag to any object that looks threatening -- in this case, an enemy rocket launcher.
This is definitely a pattern recognition type of experiment.
Here, where there are yellow circles, those show the real targets in the image.
Where there are red circles with no yellow, those are incorrect choices, and so, in this case, there was one correct choice and two incorrect choices.
Freeman: Next, Michael applies TDCS to the novice's brain.
After 30 minutes of electrical stimulation, he tries again.
He now quickly identifies five enemy targets in one image without making a single mistake.
In the people who got brain stimulation, every individual was performing at expert level after an hour of training.
Freeman: On average, novices who've had TDCS identify twice as many targets compared with those who haven't.
When he put subjects back in the scanner, Michael discovered that the patterns of activity in their brains are permanently changed.
Their newly acquired skills stay with them even after the stimulation wears off.
It's not hard to imagine where this technology could end up.
College kids could use it for calculus, tiger moms for pitch-perfect piano recitals.
Just isolate the part of the brain you need to learn a skill, and a TDCS cap could make you a master in minutes.
Whee! I've stimulated my brain with TDCS many, many times.
I've noticed this intense focus and the ability to concentrate very carefully on material that I'm looking at.
And I think it would be a great benefit to be able to use the tools of neuroscience to benefit people, to make sure that they could perform at a high level.
Benson: As we learn more and more about which structures in the brain are being activated, we can show it's part of you going on, whether you're thinking about it or not.
Snyder: Much of what we do is unconscious -- our preferences, our prejudices.
Someone back there is guiding the show.
Who's in charge? And I think it's the unconscious that's in charge.
Science has proven that we really do have two minds.
One drives our conscious thoughts.
The other is a shadow brain that never stops working.
It protects us from harm, heals our bodies, allows us to think faster and more creatively.
We've unlocked some secrets of the subconscious.
When we finally tap into its hidden powers, who knows what we will achieve?